BOULDER — Let’s start with a heartwarming individual story because, frankly, there’s not that much to say about the University of Colorado’s 42-14 loss to UCLA that you don’t already know.
A fifth-year CU senior, a walk-on until this year, caught the first touchdown pass of his college career Saturday. Dustin Ebner of Arvada was so excited he forgot to hold onto the ball when the play was over.
“At halftime some of the guys were giving me crap, saying I should have kept the ball,” he admitted afterward with a smile. In fact, he wasn’t quite sure what he did with it.
“I don’t know, I think I was so excited in the celebration, I think I just dropped the ball. It was more important for me to celebrate with the team than remember to hold onto that ball. Maybe I’ll talk to J.T. (Galloway, director of equipment) and see if I can get ahold of one.”
In the media, college football is often reduced to its marquee players, the ones likely to go on to careers in the NFL. But the vast majority of college athletes are more like Ebner than the well-known players in the green room at the pro draft each year. At 6-foot-1, 185 pounds, Ebner looks like your basic college kid.
After a nice football career at Pomona High, he walked on at CU and red-shirted in 2008. He caught three balls for 15 yards his second year in Boulder, broke a fibula his third year and played mostly special teams his fourth.
Saturday, he caught the first two passes of his final season, the fourth and fifth of his college career. The first of these was a 17-yard, second-quarter touchdown from quarterback Jordan Webb that cut UCLA’s lead to 14-7 at the time.
“It was awesome,” Ebner said. “I felt like all my hard work kind of finally paid off. When I lined up, the corner was in press (coverage). As Jordan made his calls, the corner kind of backed off and had outside leverage. Then I saw the safety kind of in the middle of the field. So my eyes got really big because I knew that I was going to be his choice.”
“He’s a kid that’s been here and worked hard,” coach Jon Embree said. “I put him on scholarship this year. I was happy for him. He made a few plays out there. We don’t have a lot of depth at receiver so you’ll obviously see more of him. But he runs good routes and does a good job of catching the ball with his hands, so it was good for him to make that play in traffic. It wasn’t exactly a gimme.”
Ebner graduated last December with a degree in ecology and evolutionary biology, but he stuck around for his final year of eligibility and was rewarded with a scholarship. With the Buffs making do without Paul Richardson, their best receiver, Ebner has been rotating in whenever sophomore starter Tyler McCulloch needs a blow.
His teammates knew what the first touchdown of his career meant to him.
“They were really excited; they all gave me some love,” Ebner said. “It was a great experience for me. I had my mom, my dad and then a couple other friends in the stands. After the game, I went to the sideline and gave them big hugs. They were really proud of me.”
When Ebner is in the game on offense, he’s usually asked to block downfield in the run game, which he’s happy to do. But he admitted that finally seeing the end zone for the first time since high school made him eager to do it again.
“The thing with run-blocking is that it’s all effort,” he said. “That’s what I really strive for — just go out there and put all my effort into each play. So being rewarded with pass plays is awesome, to get that recognition, because not everybody recognizes when you’re blocking. Now I’m hungry for those touchdowns.”
Outside of Ebner being rewarded for five years of dedication to CU football, there wasn’t much good news Saturday. UCLA, which was ranked No. 19 in the country before being upset by Oregon State last week, is a lot better than CU in pretty much every respect. The Buffs’ defense kept them in the game until back-to-back turnovers by the offense near the end of the third quarter allowed the Bruins to put them away.
“We’ve got to get better in all facets of the game,” said Webb, the junior transfer from Kansas.
Alums from CU’s football glory days, Kordell Stewart and Michael Westbrook, joined the team on the sideline. This turned into a bittersweet experience for Embree’s young crew, which couldn’t turn their words of inspiration into inspired play.
“I always remember watching Kordell for the Steelers; such an exciting player,” Webb said. “But you know, it sucks to lose. With those guys on the sideline, it really sucks to lose. Those guys, they started the tradition here, and it’s not a good feeling whenever you feel like you let someone like that down.”
Rebuilding a college football program takes time, and the temptation is strong among fans, alumni and media to get discouraged and rip everybody involved. But the truth is CU is going to take its lumps in the Pac-12 this season. That’s pretty obvious, despite last week’s memorable come-from-behind upset at Washington State.
“I actually was disappointed,” Embree said. “I thought our kids competed hard and played well in spurts. We didn’t do a good job tackling. We had two critical turnovers that they converted to 14 points and then never really were able to recover from that.”
Embree’s charges get next weekend off to work on their numerous issues before playing a nationally-televised night game at Folsom Field against Arizona on Oct. 11.
Who knows? If Dustin Ebner catches a touchdown in that one, maybe he’ll remember to keep the ball.